Professor Gordon Campbell, FBA

Oration given by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, on the award of an honorary degree to Professor Campbell on 14 July 2017

In our age of increasing specialisation, the term “Renaissance man” is applied too readily to people who happen to demonstrate one interest outside the area for which they are known. But Gordon Campbell is truly a renaissance man – and not just because he is a very distinguished student of the literature of the renaissance period.

It is exceptionally difficult to summarise a man whose publications alone cover art, architecture, the Bible, classical antiquity, gardens, Islam, legal history, music and the literature of many periods and countries; and who is without question the most travelled person in the hall today.

Gordon was born in Surrey, his mother coming from minor gentry with a Royal Navy background. So far so conventional. His father, however, was a Canadian entrepreneur of a rather buccaneering type. It is perhaps fanciful to see in this combination of propriety and adventurousness, some of the influences which shaped the learned scholar with a thirst for travel and a readiness to pursue new business opportunities. Gordon himself would argue that stories about history and places told by one of his teachers were a more important stimulus to his wanderlust.

After the war, the family moved to Canada, where Gordon took his first degree at Waterloo University, and a master’s degree covering both English and Theology at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. Attentive listeners will note this early evidence of an unwillingness to be confined to one discipline.

Serving as bartender at a Shakespeare conference, Gordon asked where he could continue his studies in the UK and was directed to the University of York – still a distinguished centre for Renaissance studies. His supervisor, Dinos Patrides, proved a demanding mentor of a sort which doctoral students in today’s audience may not have encountered, and which Gordon characterises as “benign neglect”. Supervision meetings were rare, but when they occurred his work was “shredded for two hours”. The commitment to rigour and resistance to academic laziness have been consistent features of Gordon’s intellectual life.

The successful defence of his thesis on the sixteenth century logician, Peter Ramus, was followed by a first international academic appointment, at Aarhus in Denmark, where he was greeted with the announcement that there was no syllabus, so could he have a go at eighteenth century nature poetry. This was followed by five years at the University of Liverpool and then in 1979, encouraged by an old friend, Professor Sandy Cunningham, he came to this University, where he was promoted as Professor of Renaissance Studies some years later.

In the English Department, the “father-Christmassy” figure of our honorand was a popular and stimulating teacher to generations of students, his special subject of Milton attracting more participants than might have been expected; and his academic colleagues have found him a good humoured, generous and supportive colleague. But a larger stage was always bound to beckon.

In academic terms, this has meant participation in a range of learned societies. The list of Gordon’s fellowships is considerably longer than those printed in today’s programme. His chairmanship of the Society for Renaissance Studies reflects the standing he has in his own field, while the election to a Fellowship of the British Academy is the highest honour in the humanities as a whole.  The Warburg Institute in London, the foremost institution in the world for the study of cultural history, is perhaps his real intellectual home, providing a place for dialogue with leading scholars from the many disciplines to which Gordon contributes.

His international activities also defy summary. As he puts it, he has travelled “with scholarly intent to all seven continents” taking in countries from Antigua to Uganda, Japan to Nepal. For this University, he pioneered international student recruitment in the early 1980s, when it was not common practice in British universities, so laying the foundations for the diverse multi-national student community that Leicester now enjoys.

Gordon has not limited his activities to places of safety and prosperity, as illustrated by his work in South Africa, where he advised on funding inequities; in Beirut, where he was the first British academic visitor for fifteen years; and in the West Bank, where he helped Palestinians in need of higher education after the Intifada.

The precise nature of Gordon’s international work has remained mysterious to colleagues in Leicester. What is clear is that his understanding of the Islamic world, combined with negotiating skills, has made him a highly regarded adviser to the British government in the development of agreements in that region, to which he has made over a hundred visits. As founding chair of the British Universities Iraq Consortium, he chaired meetings at ministerial level in Baghdad. He led negotiations with the Saudi Minister of Higher Education as part of a mission with then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw; and has drafted a cross-governmental strategy for the support of education in the Islamic countries.

His publications as author or as editor similarly illustrate the breadth of his interests and his impressive intellectual grasp. Quantity is not the only measure of this, but it is noteworthy that he has 27 books to his name, and at least 100 articles, many on Milton; plus several thousand individual entries in the encyclopaedias he has edited. In the last decade alone his publications include John Milton: Life, work and thought, the Grove Encyclopaedias of Classical Art and Architecture and of Northern Renaissance Art; Bible: The Story of the King James Version and The Hermit in the Garden: from Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome.

Unsurprisingly, he was involved in planning the reburial of Richard III in Leicester cathedral in 2015, delivering a diplomatic eulogy; and he chairs the cathedral’s fabric advisory committee. He now spends much of his time in the USA, where he is responsible for substantial sections of a new Museum of the Bible opening in Washington later this year.

Despite all his academic achievements and his international travels, Gordon has been a committed family man, sharing many of his travels with Mary, and devoting himself to his children, who are with us today, and to his grandchildren. With Mary also he finds time to sing in choirs and to tend a beautiful garden and an allotment (though he credits her with this last).

We honour Gordon Campbell today for the scholar and teacher that he is, and for his rare erudition, his remarkable energy, his services to international understanding and to the University. For the past fourteen years, Gordon has stood at this lectern as public orator and delivered some of the most eloquent orations heard at this University. Cicero, one of the greatest orators of all time, said, if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. One suspects that Gordon Campbell would echo that - but he would also insist on his passport and an air ticket.

Today’s orator cannot rise to the standards of a Cicero or a Campbell, but is privileged to say:

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Gordon Roy Campbell, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

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